Governments meet to discuss future of the natural world

Victor Anderson looks ahead to a major meeting of Government representatives in Japan who will discussing the future of the planets biodiversity.

Victor Anderson is an economist for WWF, and a former economist with the Sustainable Development Commission; he writes on economic and sustainability issues

Government representatives will today be meeting in Nagoya, Japan, to discuss the future of the natural world.  The meeting, which runs till October 29th, is the Conference of the Parties (CoP) to the Biodiversity Convention – the equivalent for ecosystems and extinctions to the Climate Convention CoP in Copenhagen in December.

Copenhagen was a failure, and there are limited expectations for the Nagoya meeting, even though the text of the Convention on Biological Diversity, signed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, is potentially very far-reaching in its implications, providing mechanisms whereby large amounts of money could change hands internationally – if there was the political will for this to happen, which currently there isn’t.

However, there are some signs of hope which may make this year’s CoP an improvement on its predecessors.  All of them are on balance positive, though problematic. There is increasing interest from influential businesses and business organisations. They are increasingly coming to see that most firms depend on ecosystems in some way.

Most obviously, if the oceans are in a bad state, the fishing industry isn’t going to do so well. The growing of food depends on water supplies, soil quality, and pollination, all of which in turn depend on the biological health of ecosystems.

Biological raw materials such as rubber, wool, cotton, palm oil and wood all play important roles in the world economy.  Business representatives turned up in large numbers to a conference and exhibition, Global Business of Biodiversity, held in London recently.

The concept, derived from economics, which business and many governments are rallying around is ‘ecosystem services’ – interpreted as the services which ecosystems provide to the economy, although it arguably also has a wider meaning, encompassing the services ecosystems provide directly to the rural poor in ‘developing’ countries, the cultural value of nature to human societies, and the services which different non-human species provide to each other. ‘Ecosystem services’ are highlighted in a set of reports being published in the run-up to the Nagoya meeting.

There is also the problem that most economists like to quantify everything in money terms, and so many of them have approached the question of the deterioration of the natural world and the extinction of species through trying to put a price tag on it, telling us how many trillions of dollars we are losing.

Such figures impress some people who would otherwise treat the value of nature as zero, but they are highly problematic methodologically and they can divert attention from the more important tasks for economists of trying to devise payment and ownership systems to incentivise ecosystem protection, as well as trying to address the economic causes which are driving environmental destruction in the first place.

Businesses and economists have been joined by biologists, who have become rather envious in the past few years at the sight of their climate science colleagues being listened to by governments and co-ordinating their efforts internationally through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

There is therefore a proposal, almost certain to be agreed, being put to the Nagoya CoP to establish an equivalent of IPCC for biological diversity and ecosystems.  This is currently entitled IPBES: Intergovernmental science-policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. Like the IPCC, it will no doubt have the same problems of establishing the reliability of its peer review process, finding ways to link in with governments without allowing governments to water down the science, and deciding whether economists are proper scientists or not.

WWF International added the latest of their two-yearly overviews of the current science, the ‘Living Planet Report’, on October 13. This shows further deterioration in the world’s ecosystems and the failure of governments around the world to achieve their targets for biodiversity conservation.

In Britain, a lot will depend of course on the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR). Although the Department for International Development (DfID) spending has been ring-fenced, it looks like the boundaries of what gets included there will be changed, so that international environmental programmes currently run by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) will be transferred over, and then presumably subject to different objectives, such as the new emphasis in DfID on serving the Government’s defence and foreign policies.

The CSR will be published during the Nagoya CoP, providing representatives of other governments with the chance to ask difficult questions about the new UK policies before the conference ends.

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